Virtual Worlds Upon Worlds – Animator J.Walt creates art live in front of an audience

Animator and artist J.Walt takes his stage name from Walt Disney, who he counts as a huge influence. But Uncle Walt never could have dreamed of the technology and the hallucinogenic imagination that goes into J. Walt’s work.

Set to show tonight through Sunday at Center Stage Theater, “Spontaneous Fantasia” takes the viewer on a spin through huge virtual worlds that J.Walt creates live using a drawing tablet and a joystick. Its name is just another tribute to his entertainment hero. Years ago, this sort of mind-bending journey would have taken months and months to assemble and process. But with modern processor speed and graphics cards able to crunch numbers at an incredible rate, J.Walt’s movies are now created in the same way that a jazz musician would improvise a melody.

J.Walt’s first animated films were in a more traditional style, but he was soon drawn into computer animation because of its ability to easily render shapes in space. It also led, he said, to exploring what he could achieve in real time. He graduated from CalArts’ Experimental Animation Department in 1988 and has worked for Sony and Disney, among others.

“One of the fun things about real-time animation is the exploratory aspect of it,” he says. “Playing around with dynamic systems and dimensions and parameters … and watching it all unfold is great fun. I want to share that with audiences, and it doesn’t really work if you have to just make it as a finite film.”

J.Walt wrote the rendering engine — similar to those used in first-person shooter games like Halo or Call of Duty — in C++ and Python, and as a result, has been able to tweak the application to his own needs. Running on a PC, J.Walt’s setup contains hardware that anybody could buy, but it is how the artist uses it that makes the difference.

“There is no conscious line between the programming and the performing,” he explains.

In “The Omnicentric Universe,” which takes up one half of the performance, J.Walt creates a world from scratch. With geographic features, plant life and alien organisms, he starts populating his world, even making the creatures fly and dance. Part of the performance is celebrating the act of creation, he says. He is limited by a finite amount of computer power, but so far, he hasn’t reached it and hasn’t crashed live. There’s a philosophy behind all this, too.

“We can make the world that we want,” J.Walt says. “And technology is a part of that. But we have to decide what we want to do with technology. We have to be active participants in deciding where we want to go, as a person, as a society.”

The existence of this art demonstrates that idea, too, he says. He envisioned this work long ago and spent years turning it into a reality.

On top of creating art live and programming his own technology, J.Walt created the music for the soundtrack of “Spontaneous Fantasia.” Where does he find the time to do all these things?

“I like what I do, so it’s not hard to sit down and do some more,” he says.

It’s as simple as that.

‘SPONTANEOUS FANTASIA’
When: 7 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo (upstairs)
Cost: $25 general, $20 students and seniors
Information: (805) 963-0408, www.centerstagetheater.org, www.spontaneousfantasia.com

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